The English, Welsh, Scots and Irish have historically been regarded as the four major ethnic groups in the UK but the UK has always been a country of migration, and the increase in the size and variety of different ethnic groups since the late 1940s, added to the constant influx of migrant labour from EU and non-EU states has made the UK a multicultural state..
Certain ethnic minorities, including the native Traveller communities, continue to suffer from high rates of unemployment, social exclusion and poverty. Media campaigns against asylum-seekers and Travellers has contributed to greater hostility towards these particular groups. The events of 11 September 2001 and the London suicide bombings in July 2005 have had a similar impact upon British Muslim community.
Some prejudice also exists against disabled persons and gay/ lesbian/ bi-sexual/ transgendered people and age discrimination is not unknown. In recent years, however, there has been much wider social acceptance of the rights of gay men and women to full equality across the political and media spectrum, and the UK has introduced comprehensive civil partnership legislation that permits same-sex couples to register their partnership and obtain equivalent legal rights as those available to opposite-sex married couples. There are proposals to recognise same-sex marriage despite opposition from a number of prominent religious figures.
In Northern Ireland the ongoing tensions between the Unionist/Protestant majority and Nationalist/Catholic minority continue to generate sectarian division, though much less so than during the period of “the troubles”. Sectarian divisions also feature in parts of Scotland.
The UK traditionally permitted very limited scope in law for preferential treatment for disadvantaged groups, but since 2000 a series of positive duties have been imposed upon public authorities to promote equality of opportunity on the grounds of race/ethnicity, disability and gender, while a similar duty in Northern Ireland extends across all of the six equality grounds (sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, religion/belief and age). Positive action strategies have been adopted at national, regional and local level across the various equality grounds and private employers are also subject to monitoring requirements and obligations to take action to remedy under- representation of either of the two main communities (Catholic and Protestant) in Northern Ireland.
The Equality Act 2010, which came into force in October 2010, made a number of important changes to equality/ discrimination law in GB. In particular, and in addition to codifying and clarifying the existing law, it significantly extended the ability of employers and others to adopt positive action measures to promote equality, and from April 2011 imposed a single cross-ground general equality duty on all GB public authorities.